Author's Preface to The Puritan Dilemma (1958)

The Puritans of New England are not in good repute today. Authors and critics who aspire to any degree of sophistication take care to repudiate them. Liberals and conservatives alike find it advantageous to label the measures they oppose as Puritan. Whatever is wrong with the American mind is attributed to its Puritan ancestry, and anything that escapes these assaults is smothered under a homespun mantle of quaintness by lovers of the antique. Seventeenth-century Massachusetts has thus become in retrospect a preposterous land of witches and witch hunters, of killjoys in tall-crowned hats, whose main occupation was to prevent each other from having any fun and whose sole virtue lay in their furniture.

It is not likely that this vision will ever be wholly dispelled. We have to caricature the Puritans in order to feel comfortable in their presence. They found answers to some human problems that we would rather forget. Their very existence is therefore an affront, a challenge to our moral complacency; and the easiest way to meet the challenge is to distort it into absurdity, turn the challengers into fanatics. It is not hard to do, for there were real fanatics among them. Ironically, we have often given our praise to the fanatics, while the man who successfully fought them has received only the grudging admiration we accord to one who succeeds in a bad business.

Actually the central problem of Puritanism as it affected John Winthrop and New England has concerned men of principle in every age, not least of all our own. It was the question of what responsibility a righteous man owes to society. If society follows a course that he considers morally wrong, should he withdraw and keep his principles intact, or should he stay? Americans have answered the question in various ways. Henry Thoreau did not hesitate to reject a society that made war on Mexico. William Lloyd Garrison called on the North to leave the Union in order to escape complicity in the sin of slaveholding. John Winthrop had another answer, which colored his approach to every problem he confronted as a man and as governor of a Puritan colony. What his answer was this book attempts to show.


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